Calling the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a "symbol of lawlessness and human rights abuses," two dozen U.S. senators are urging President Biden to shut it down quickly and find new homes for the 40 men remaining there. Many of the detainees have been confined at Guantánamo for nearly two decades without being tried or charged, and some have been cleared for release but are still being held.
In a letter sent to Biden on Friday and reviewed by NPR, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin and 23 of his Democratic-voting colleagues outlined immediate steps they believe the administration should take to close the secretive, deteriorating island detention facility. Among them:
- Reestablish the State Department office, dismantled by the Trump administration, that negotiates with foreign governments to transfer Guantánamo prisoners to other countries.
- Begin negotiating overseas transfers for the six men already approved for release as well as for any detainees who will not be charged with crimes.
- Use the U.S. federal courts to pursue plea agreements with detainees who can be federally charged and let them serve any remaining prison time overseas.
- Have the Justice Department conduct plea agreements remotely via videoconference since current federal law prohibits Guantánamo prisoners from entering the U.S. for any reason.
The senators said in the letter that Guantánamo "has damaged America's reputation, fueled anti-Muslim bigotry, and weakened the United States' ability to counter terrorism and fight for human rights and the rule of law around the world." As a result, they wrote, "it is past time" to shutter the prison, which opened in 2002, and "end indefinite detention."
Biden's likelihood of success at closing Guantánamo is unclear. His efforts are applauded by human rights groups but criticized by several Senate Republicans, who say releasing the prisoners would endanger the country. Former President Barack Obama never fulfilled his pledge to shut down Guantánamo due to vehement Republican opposition.
In their letter, the senators described Guantánamo's military court, which has finalized only one conviction in almost 20 years, as "thoroughly failed and discredited." The court has been perpetually problem-plagued, and legal proceedings there have been at a virtual standstill since February 2020 when the pandemic drastically limited access to the island.
Guantánamo's highest-profile legal matter — the Sept. 11 death penalty case involving five defendants — has not gone to trial even though the 20th anniversary of the attacks is fast approaching, and at this point few Guantánamo lawyers believe it ever will. The case has repeatedly been delayed by ongoing setbacks, including a sort of musical chairs of judges, one of whom quit last fall after two weeks on the job.
To date, according to an NPR investigation, Guantánamo's military court and prison have cost the U.S. more than $6 billion, money the senators called "wasted taxpayer dollars."
The 24 lawmakers — 23 Democrats and one independent — who signed the letter include Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla of California, and Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. The letter was also sent to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Attorney General Merrick Garland.
In February, the White House said it would review Guantánamo's prison with the goal of closing it permanently but provided few details. A National Security Council spokesperson said the review would involve the NSC, Congress and the departments of Defense, State and Justice.
Meanwhile, many of the prisoners are aging, as well as weakened by their past CIA torture. And in a rare development in December, a "forever prisoner" who has been held at Guantánamo for more than 18 years despite never being criminally charged was cleared for release after a parole-like board concluded he is no longer a significant threat to the United States. However, it is unclear when he may leave Guantánamo and where he would go, because his home country of Yemen is in a state of collapse.
And Guantánamo's facilities are rapidly decaying. Earlier this month, alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other so-called high-value detainees were moved from a crumbling secret detention facility to a main prison area, a move the military said would cut expenses.
In recent years, about 1,800 troops — mostly National Guard members — have overseen Guantánamo's 40 remaining detainees, costing an estimated $13 million per prisoner per year. That guard force now numbers about 1,500. Almost 800 detainees have passed through the prison since it opened in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
President Biden has vowed to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by this year's 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Well today, two dozen U.S. senators are urging him to end another legacy of 9/11. They want him to shut down the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and they have outlined how he could do that. Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's investigations team is here with details. And Sacha, I gather you've got your hands on a copy of a letter that these senators sent to the president.
SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: I do. And none of the 24 letter-signers are Republicans. In the letter, they call Guantanamo's prison, quote, "a symbol of lawlessness and human rights abuses." They point out - as we have reported on our air - that 40 men are still being held there, more than half have been there for up to nearly two decades without ever being tried or charged. Six have been cleared for release but are still being held. And some, as you know, were tortured in secret CIA prisons.
KELLY: Yeah. Worth remembering that when former President Obama came to office, he vowed to shut down Guantanamo. He never managed to do it. How do these senators say President Biden could accomplish what Obama could not?
PFEIFFER: You're right. Obama faced massive Republican opposition to closing Gitmo. Republicans said it would endanger our country. But these senators today who signed this letter note that the prisoners are aging, some are sick and Guantanamo is hugely expensive. Tally so far to U.S. taxpayers - more than $6 billion since 2002.
So they detail how Biden could shut down Gitmo. For starters, they say, re-establish a State Department office that was dismantled by the Trump administration. That office used to negotiate with foreign governments to transfer Guantanamo prisoners to other countries. And they say once that office is up and running again, it could start arranging overseas transfers for these men.
KELLY: Sacha, could Biden go around Congress? Does he have to have Congress on board to get this done?
PFEIFFER: I asked today a defense attorney - a Guantanamo defense attorney about this. Her name is Alka Pradhan. She doesn't think so. She represents one of the 9/11 defendants.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ALKA PRADHAN: The White House does not need Congress to do that. To negotiate transfers to other countries, you know, the State Department can do that all on their own as long as they have some dedicated personnel to do that.
KELLY: Sacha, transfers to other countries - then what happens in the other countries? Where would they go?
PFEIFFER: It would be a case-by-case basis to decide where they go. Some would go back to their home countries. Others would go to other countries that agreed to take them for repatriation, say.
KELLY: And then what? Would they be set free?
PFEIFFER: Sometimes, yes, if, for example, they were already approved for release or they were never charged. But the senators also say that the Justice Department could pursue plea agreements by remote video conference with prisoners who could be federally prosecuted. And then if they're sentenced to prison time beyond what they've already served at Guantanamo, they could serve the remainder in a foreign country.
KELLY: So how likely is Biden to be successful at closing Gitmo?
PFEIFFER: Unclear - hard to gauge how much Republicans will fight back. But here's what White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in February.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JEN PSAKI: That certainly is our goal and our intention. So we are undertaking an NSC process - which is how it should work - to work with the interagency, I should say, to assess the current state of play that the Biden administration has - what we've inherited from the previous administration.
PFEIFFER: And when she says NSC, she's talking about the National Security Council working with other government officials to try to close Gitmo.
KELLY: That is Sacha Pfeiffer of NPR's investigations team. Thank you.
PFEIFFER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.